It started as a boxing term. A voluntary act turning onlooker to contender. Indicating an opportunity about to be taken, a literal stepping out of the crowd.
Throwing one’s “hat in the ring” since turned political. Actual fisticuffs swapped for ideological combat. But in Fort Mill, the canvas hasn’t been littered with headgear of late. When hats are thrown, often there isn’t even a fight.
“I certainly have noticed that there are very few people who run, and also very few percentage-wise that vote,” said Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage. “We don’t have a high percentage of voter turnout.”
Fort Mill Town Council has three seats up for election in November. Filing ends Sept. 8. As of press time Friday, only three candidates — all incumbents — filed to run. And given recent history, it wouldn’t be surprising if some or all of those incumbents took seats without needing an election.
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“I’m unsure on where to place the reason,” Savage said. “I’d like to see more.”
Combing data from county and state election offices, ethics commission filings and news archives, the Fort Mill Times looked at just how many candidates tend to emerge in communities big and small, near and far. Results show a town behind others in its area. They don’t show why.
A slow run
In 2007, Fort Mill reached perhaps its high point of political participation. Danny Funderburk and Charlie Powers both ran for mayor, a seat Powers held 24 years prior. Grady Ervin and Ronnie Helms faced off for a ward seat, as did Tom Adams and Charlie Boyette. Three men vied for an at-large seat, with Bryan Smith and Dean Youhanic challenging incumbent Ken Starnes.
Voter turnout topped 20 percent. Ervin and Starnes won as incumbents, Adams as a newcomer. Funderburk became the first new mayor in a generation.
Councilman Larry Huntley even won a special election that year to finish the term of late Councilman L.A. Graham. Huntley won a two-way race by 18 votes, prompting the story he still enjoys telling when reminiscing the result.
“That’s when I started calling myself ‘Landslide Larry,’” Huntley joked.
In the decade since, participation waned.
Since 2008 the town had 20 seats come open, either for mayor or council. Only six required elections. From 2009 to 2012, there were eight straight unopposed contests. The town averaged fewer than three candidates for every two races.
Tega Cay, in contrast, had about twice that rate. Most other municipalities in York County ranked higher than Fort Mill, too.
Candidates per seat
Tega Cay City Council
13 since 2007
York County Council
63 since 2000
York City Council
16 since 2010
Fort Mill School Board
30 since 2000
Clover Town Council
20 since 2010
Sharon Town Council
13 since 2010
Rock Hill City Council
12 since 2010
Fort Mill Town Council
20 since 2008
McConnells Town Council
13 since 2010
Hickory Grove Town Council
15 since 2010
Smyrna Town Council
16 since 2010
* Municipal council figures include both mayor and council seats. Candidates include anyone who filed with an election or ethics commission for an upcoming election. Ongoing elections aren’t included.
A statewide sampling shows similar results. Comparing candidate list totals isn’t holding apples to apples. Columbia had as many candidates in its last major election cycle as Fort Mill has its past three. Charleston had as many last year as Fort Mill has since 2011.
But even picking communities with comparable populations can be misleading. The Municipal Association of South Carolina lists James Island and Irmo just ahead of Fort Mill in population, Port Royal and Forest Acres right behind it. James Island had to incorporate and re-incorporate four times since 1993, most recently in 2012. Elections have come in bunches, on foundational issues. Irmo, Forest Acres and James Island have four council seats in addition to their mayors, Port Royal only three. Fort Mill has six and a mayor.
The fairest comparison, then, is how many candidates file per open seat. Numbers on end-of-term and special elections have Fort Mill near, but not at, the bottom among peers.
Candidates per seat
10 since 2010
16 since 2010
8 since 2010
20 since 2008
8 since 2010
* Population figures are based on the most recent Municipal Association of South Carolina ranking of state municipalities. Seats include both mayor and council positions.
While mega-municipalities draw the most total candidates, the per seat figure shows far smaller communities can participate at a high rate. Great Falls has about a fifth the population of Fort Mill but 2.82 candidates per seat since 2010, twice what Fort Mill had the past decade. Honea Path, about a third Fort Mill’s size and straddling Anderson and Abbeville counties, scored 2.25 candidates per seat. McBee, known by many in Fort Mill as a pass through heading toward Myrtle Beach, had 1.8 candidates per seat. Fort Mill has more than 10 times the residents.
Mayor George Sheppard in Tega Cay won his seat twice, and a Tega Cay City Council seat prior to that when he was still a fairly recent New York transplant. Those elections combined for 12 candidates. Only four seats — the Council campaign had two winners — were awarded.
“Tega Cay citizens are involved in their community and in what's going on, and they want to be involved,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard sees reasons from civic pride on down to the $25 filing fee, much less than some other municipalities. All Tega Cay elections are at-large contests giving anyone a chance to run for any seat. Others, including Fort Mill, have wards or districts. Generally, Sheppard said, city residents “have opinions and want to have their voice heard.”
The mayor believes Tega Cay is big enough now at least to consider a ward system, but he won't be around to decide it. Sheppard believes two terms as mayor is enough. He believes someone else should take a turn leading.
“People talk about term limits and whether we should have term limits,” Sheppard said. “I’ve always felt that we have term limits. They're called elections.”
Three of the seven elected officials serving in Fort Mill won their most recent term without an election (Councilwoman Lisa McCarley did win a three-way campaign in early 2015 before facing no opposition that fall). Savage won three council terms before winning the mayor seat, her first campaign with a challenger. Huntley twice ran opposed, once unopposed and is waiting to see if he’ll be opposed this fall.
His take on the small candidate fields? The optimist in him leans toward one reason.
“One is,” Huntley laughed, “we're just doing such a good job.”
Public trust in officials could be a reason for few new challengers. So can the issues they face. The most common citizen complaint in Fort Mill involves roads, and those fixes largely are decided at the federal, state or county levels. Huntley said Fort Mill isn’t prone to many controversial issues. When one arises, there isn’t much screaming and shouting.
“We all get along well,” Huntley said. “Even when we disagree, we do it pleasantly. Nobody’s out there looking like a jerk.”
Still, he said, there are less flattering reasons why a town could see few candidates.
“There's probably not the interest there should be in government,” Huntley said. “You can see it at our council meetings. It’s not like we have overflow crowds all the time.”
Savage agreed; She would like to think public confidence is a factor. There is one reason she won’t accept.
“It’s not that they don’t care,” she said of residents. “I can’t believe that.”
Savage sees people doing too much else in Fort Mill to consider apathy.
“They’re devoting a lot of time to their children, to the schools and sports teams,” she said. “There are civic groups. All of these quality of life issues that our community is known for.”
The ward system and a lack of controversial issues are part, Savage said. People wanting to avoid conflict may be. The one time Savage faced opposition, by then fellow council member Tom Adams for mayor, both went out of their way to show unity.
“We didn’t run against each other,” Savage said. “We ran for the position.”
Even the people who know local politics best can’t pin down exact reasons for participation trends. For Savage, the greater concern is often low voter turnout. In a 2014 vote three people filed paperwork and two actually ran, yet less than 100 total votes decided the race. She understands people not signing up for four years of civic work, but not when they fail to read up on candidates and cast a ballot every year or so.
The mayor believes the number of people who file isn’t as critical is having the right people serve. People willing to devote considerable time even after the daily commute to Charlotte, the youth sports or so many other commitments people pile up until “there’s not that much of a day left.” People willing to work on issues when the results often don’t appear for years or decades after a vote.
“Serving your community is not an easy task,” Savage said. “It’s an honor to do so, but it’s not an easy task.”
Want to run?
Fort Mill Town Council has its seats for Ward 1 and Ward 3 up for election this fall, and an at-large seat. Candidate filing ends at noon Sept. 8. For more information, visit the York County Voter Registration and Elections office at yorkcountygov.com or 803-684-1242. The office is located at 13 S. Congress St., York.